SEOUL: The United States and South Korea have agreed to “coordinate” any response to North Korea after Pyongyang’s deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island provoked global condemnation.
The assault Tuesday which killed two South Korean marines was one of the most serious border incidents since the 1950-1953 war.
South Korea’s military went on top alert, its troops fired back with cannon and the government met in an underground war room, officials said, in response to what Seoul called an atrocity against civilians.
North Korea’s supreme command, however, accused South Korea of firing first and vowed “merciless military attacks with no hesitation if the South Korean enemy dares to invade our sea territory by 0.001 mm”.
But condemnation of Pyongyang poured in from the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, along with Russia, Japan and Western Europe.
The White House convened a high-powered meeting of top civilian, military and intelligence officials to discuss the attack while the Pentagon said US and South Korean defence chiefs had agreed in talks to “coordinate” any response.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his South Korean counterpart Kim Tae-young that the shelling was a violation of the armistice agreement and expressed appreciation for Seoul’s “restraint,” press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
The two “agreed their departments should consult closely and coordinate on any response to this act of aggression by the North,” Morrell said in an email.
The United States vowed to pursue a “measured and unified” response to the attack on the border island of Yeonpyeong but said it was too early to consider any military response.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was “going to work with China” and the other parties to the six-nation talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear drive.
“We’re still monitoring the situation and talking with our allies,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters separately.
“At this point it’s premature to say that we’re considering any action,” he said.
President Barack Obama, who was “outraged” at the attack, was due to speak with his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-Bak to discuss the crisis.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint from both Koreas after condemning the attack by the North.
China — North Korea’s sole major ally and economic prop — also urged restraint, and called for the resumption of the stalled six-nation nuclear talks.
The firing came after North Korea’s disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant — a second potential way of building a nuclear bomb — which is causing serious alarm for the United States and its allies.
It also comes as North Korea prepares for an eventual dynastic succession from Kim Jong-Il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un. The expected transfer is fuelling speculation about the opaque regime’s military and nuclear intentions.
South Korean General Lee Hong-Ki accused Pyongyang of a “pre-planned” attack and an “inhumane atrocity that fired random shells towards residential areas of defenceless civilians”.
Some 50 shells landed on Yeonpyeong near the tense Yellow Sea border, damaging dozens of houses and sending plumes of thick smoke into the air, YTN television reported.
Two South Korean marines — part of a contingent based permanently on the frontline island — were killed, the military said.
Another 15 marines were wounded along with three civilians, officials said. They said South Korean forces fired 80 rounds back from K-9 self-propelled guns on Yeonpyeong.
Sporadic firing by each side continued for more than an hour, the military said.
The shelling began at 2:34 pm (0534 GMT) on Tuesday after the North sent several messages protesting about South Korean exercises being staged south of the border, a presidential spokesman said.
“Flashes along with a thunderous sound were seen here and there across our villages and up to 10 houses were engulfed in flames,” said Woo Soo-Woo, 62, who fled to the mainland by ferry along with scores of other islanders.
Yeonpyeong lies just south of the border declared by UN forces after the war, but north of the sea border declared by Pyongyang. The Yellow Sea border was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and last November.
Tensions have been acute since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul says was the result of a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang has rejected the charge.
President Lee convened an emergency meeting of ministers and national security advisers in an underground war room.
His office warned that South Korea would “sternly retaliate” for any further provocations.